Detroit Tigers reliever Joe Nathan will undergo Tommy John surgery and will miss the entire 2015 season, leaving the bullpen in flux. Joakim Soria, who has been doing a great job in the closer's role, will handle ninth inning duties, likely providing the team with an upgrade over Nathan's 2014 production in that role. Still, the loss of Nathan is a big blow to the 'pen overall, and the club must now find alternatives to handle late inning duties. Each of the internal options brings questions with them to the mound.
The Tigers' bullpen had not seen much action through the first two weeks of the season thanks to a starting pitching rotation that made a habit of going deep into games. They have often handed the ball off directly to Soria, leaving the soft underbelly of the roster was untested as the club raced out to an 11-2 record.
When the Tigers need someone other than Soria to get outs, things get interesting. Brad Ausmus appears to be turning to Joba Chamberlain, the veteran who filled the eighth inning role throughout the 2014 season, to do the same job again this season. However, that is a risky proposition. Chamberlain finished last season struggling to get outs, posting an ERA of 5.84 after July 24th. He was brought back after being unable to sign a multi-year contract as a free agent, settling for a one-year, $1 million contract with Detroit that seemed like an afterthought at the time. Despite a poor performance during spring training, he will get the first crack at the primary setup role.
The Tigers made it clear during the offseason that -- for the third year in a row -- they were going to count on hard-throwing righthander Bruce Rondon. Rondon, who is back on the disabled list again this season with a shoulder injury, has managed to pitch just 28 2/3 career innings in the major leagues. For the third season in a row, counting on Rondon has backfired (so far). The club is hopeful that he can still get healthy and contribute this season.
One new free agent signing that the club made to bolster their beleaguered bullpen was Tom Gorzelanny. The veteran lefthander signed another $1 million incentive-laden contract. He was sidelined for much of 2014 due to injuries, but posted a stellar 0.86 ERA for the Milwaukee Brewers when healthy, striking out 23 batters in 21 innings and walking eight. He also struggled in spring training, but is off to a decent start despite taking the loss in yesterday's game.
Al Alburquerque cut his walk rate in half from 2013 to 2014 while allowing a 2.51 ERA and 1.17 WHIP. Both numbers were lowest in the Detroit bullpen, while his 9.89 strikeouts per nine innings were the best of the bunch. Alburquerque also allowed seven home runs, all of which fortunately came with the bases empty. If that trend were to continue, the damage is likely to be much greater. The fact that he did not allow a home run after July 30 is encouraging, but he has struggled with his control in the cold weather so far this season.
Blaine Hardy was called up in mid-June last season, and managed to stick in the major leagues for the remainder of the year. Hardy posted a 2.54 ERA, allowing just one home run for the season, and was one of just three Tigers’ relief pitchers -- along with Alburquerque and Chamberlain -- to perform above replacement level. However, Hardy has not shown the form that kept him in the major leagues last year. He failed to make the team out of spring training, getting recalled only when Nathan went on the disabled list. He has an 8.10 ERA in 6 2/3 innings of work thus far.
Ian Krol was given a job as the second left-handed reliever, in part because no other lefthanders stepped forward to claim the job in spring training. He finished the spring strong, with three solid outings. Krol also has an issue with home runs, giving up 1.65 homers per nine innings in his first two seasons, a ratio was among the highest in the major leagues. He also struggles against right-handed hitters, allowing a career batting line of .317/.377/.612 with 10 home runs in 155 plate appearances. Unfortunately for him, about 70 percent of batters hit right-handed. Krol has been sent back to the minor leagues, even quicker this year than last.
Angel Nesbitt, the rookie righthander who made the team with an impressive spring training, has looked promising. In six innings, he has struck out five and walked just one batter, allowing one earned run, while not surrendering a home run. If he continues on this track, Ausmus may give him a more important role.
Righthander Alex Wilson, previewed here, has been recalled to take Krol's place. Wilson was acquired from Boston via trade last offseason, and opened the season by closing games in Toledo. He struggled in spring training but has not allowed an earned run in 5 1/3 innings of work in the minors thus far. Josh Zeid, who was picked up after being let go by the Houston Astros, is also off to a fine start, but small samples in the minor leagues don’t say much. Kyle Ryan and Buck Farmer are in Toledo’s rotation and not doing nearly as well. Kyle Lobstein, who has pitched well in place of Justin Verlander, might be moved to the bullpen once Verlander returns from the disabled list.
The Tigers have made a habit in recent years of finding a few good men to pitch in the late innings, limiting the damage in the loss column by limiting the number of blown saves and blown games. They have consistently outperformed their bullpen’s overall numbers. Other than Soria, each of the other members of the Detroit bullpen brings significant questions with them to the mound at the present time, so it’s unclear where they will find the late inning relief that is needed this season.
Chamberlain could repeat his first half performance from a year ago, but the next time that he puts together a full solid season will be the first time he has done so in his career. Rondon could finally play a prominent role. Krol and Alburquerque have the stuff, if they can find the command and keep the ball in the yard. At this point, there are more questions than answers in the Tigers’ bullpen. The Tigers used 26 relief pitchers during the 2014 season, 12 of them working at least 10 innings. That is not unusual. The revolving door may be spinning once again in 2015 until the Tigers find a more consistent solution.